Pamela Carter Joern
Everyone calls her Toby. Her real name is Gwendolyn, but few know that. For sixty-nine
years she’s been Toby, ever since her brother John called her Gwendolyn, and she spat peas
from her seat in the high chair and said, “That sumbitch called me Gwenlum. My name not
Gwenlum. My’s Toby.” The dog’s name. The name stuck, long after the dog died, and now
only she and John remember how she got the name, and John, once a falling-down drunk,
either can’t tell or no one would believe him.
She looks out the upstairs bedroom window of her foursquare house nestled deep in the
Sandhills of Nebraska. The sun knifes off the roof of the empty machine shed and stabs at
her eyes. She cups her hand over her brow. She’ll have to haul water out to the old windmill,
rescue the blue morning glories that have started their summer climb. Buttoning her shirt, she
automatically recites a childhood rhyme: doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief. She changes the
wording for the last four buttons: banker, rascal, shyster, thief. Smoothing her wiry gray hair
with a glance in the mirror, she voices her concerns to a god she’s not sure she believes in,
“Give Lila a safe flight. And grant Malcolm Lord a miserable day. It might do the little wretch
Running her palm down the worn stair banister, Toby thinks she’ll see Malcolm Lord in hell
before she’ll give up this place. Her parents built this house in 1920, eleven years before she
was born. They ordered it as a kit from Sears, hauled it thirty-five miles overland by wagon
from the nearest train depot. She loves everything in this house, the creak in the oak floor at
the foot of the landing, the rough maroon bricks of the fireplace, the smell of dust when the
furnace kicks in. The red and blue Oriental rug chosen by her mother, frayed in spots, the
fringe tangled in lumps to trip over. The leaded glass doors on the half-wall bookcases,
where she and her sister used to hoard bags of candy purchased on rare trips to town. The
kitchen window facing west. A loud ticking clock. The same corner table her parents used,
one leg propped by a wad of cardboard. The wide bay window, where she stands now,
looking out on a sweeping canopy of sky.
The outside façade, however, tells another story. The designers called it The Alhambra, after
a Spanish palace that doubled as a fortress. Cream stucco, black trim, a scalloped header
stretching up from the roof, elaborately carved front columns. Anywhere else, the house
might have seemed elegant, or at least exotic. Plopped in the Nebraska Sandhills, it looked
ridiculous, a fact missed by Toby’s father who had chosen it because it was the most
ostentatious of all the models available. As he intended, the Alhambra stood as a monument to
Luther Bolden’s success on the Bluestem Ranch. When Toby was a girl, this house lit up the
prairie for miles, people arriving by wagon and buggy and early autos to sing cowboy songs
around a campfire, drink beer and whiskey on the front porch, dance in the cleared-out
sunroom. Luther paraded her shy mother, spun Rosemary around in a red taffeta dress he’d
ordered from another catalog, his grip tight on her upper arm. King of the Sandhills.
Toby knows that the neighbors smirked behind her father’s back. They held grudges, every
one of them, justified by her father’s legendary ruthlessness. Still, they came to his home and
drank his liquor, because they were lonesome and starved for a drop of pleasure, and he
knew how to throw a fine party. And most of them, one way or another, owed Luther
Even if Toby could scrape together the money, she wouldn’t alter the façade. She keeps the
false scallops, the hint of fallen aristocracy, because the exterior of her house reminds her of
what she does not want to become—another Luther.
Gertie’s already sitting at the kitchen table. She’s dressed for town in one of those outfits old
women wear, two-piece polyester, Wal-Mart or K-Mart specials. Peach pants, a white
blousy top with peach, mint, and blue flowers made of twisted ribbons. Washable,
lightweight, and cheap. Toby refuses such clothes, making her mind up, as she has
throughout life, not to be like Gertie. Ten years older than Toby, Gertie’s her advance
warning, her red light flashing. Instead, Toby wears a plaid cotton shirt, tails out over the
bunchy elastic waistline of her jeans. She does allow herself elastic. She’s not a fool.
Toby moves to get juice out of the refrigerator, bends and retrieves a pan from the Hoosier
cupboard, reaches down the box of oatmeal. Gertie sits, the Queen of Sheba. More like
Luther every day. Toby knows she’s behaving like her mother, passively resentful. Sooner or
later, she’ll have to do something about it, but today’s not the day. Today, they have
problems sufficient unto themselves.
She thinks this last, a vestige of some forgotten Bible verse, and then realizes that Gertie is
paging through her Bible. The King James version, red letter edition. Worn and dried out
leather framed by jagged zipper teeth. The zipper hasn’t worked for years, clogged by the
tangled tassel of a red crocheted cross that serves as a bookmark. Gertie roams the pages
with her magnifying glass, head cocked to one side, her center vision robbed by encroaching
macular degeneration. Toby leans over to see what book Gertie’s opened up this morning,
preparing herself for the onslaught that’s sure to come. She hopes it’s not any of the letters
of the Apostle Paul, that bossy old patrician. Not the Book of Revelation, with its promises of
damnation and woe. She sees that it’s the Book of Ruth and breathes a little easier. Well.
Two women finding a way to manage, manipulating men to get what they need, not a bad
precedent for what’s in store for all of them. She doubts Gertie will see it that way, but she
likes feeling she has some leverage if Gertie gets going on the shalts and shalt nots of their
lives in this hardscrabble place.
“You want me to come with you?” Gertie asks.
“No, I think I better go alone. She’ll be overwhelmed as it is.” Toby pours Gertie’s coffee,
sets the steaming mug in front of her.
Gertie doesn’t look up. “You coddle her too much. Just like you did Nola Jean.”
“Let’s don’t get started down that road.”
“I’m just saying.”
Toby says nothing. She rests her hips against the counter, cradles her coffee cup.
“I s’pose you’ll be wanting to give her that front bedroom. I can move down the hall.”
Toby studies Gertie, the roundness of her, the squint of her eyes through thick glasses.
Gertie’s out here for the summer because she hates her little house in town and because
Howard’s in the nursing home with Alzheimer’s. Her eyes, too, getting worse. Gertie’s
daughter lives in Denver and doesn’t want her. Her son’s dead, his wife and Gertie not on
speaking terms. That leaves only her grandson Clay who Gertie blames for everything that’s
gone wrong. And Toby. Toby’s the last car on Gertie’s train.
“All right,” Toby says. She knows Gertie has no intention of moving out of that front
bedroom. Toby had offered her the downstairs study, a small room with a bath that was
added on after the accident that confined Toby’s father to a wheelchair. All they had to do
was swap the desk for a bed. But Gertie wanted the room that was hers when they were
kids in this house. “Maybe that would be best,” Toby adds. She lifts her cup, the coffee
bitter on her tongue.
She watches Gertie turn pink, like a live lobster she once dropped in a pan of boiling water
when she and Walter took a cruise. She thinks about that lobster and wonders why it amuses
her to see Gertie’s discomfort. What kind of monster is she? She ate that lobster without
blinking an eye.
“I might just as well go on back to town. I know when I’m not wanted.” Gertie’s high, nasal
voice is not her best feature. Walter used to say it was in a dog’s range and beyond human
Toby raises an eyebrow and looks at Gertie. She’s had some tough luck, old Gert. Or divine
retribution. Either way, Toby’s in no mood to play her games this morning.
“Suit yourself, Gertie. I got to be going, or I’ll miss that plane. I don’t want Lila thinking I
The Floor of the Sky Excerpt